Writing Excuses 11.21: Q&A on Elemental Horror, With Steve Diamond
Q: If I want to make something ordinary, like peanut butter, terrifying without coming off as silly, how do I do that?
A: Start with the character’s reaction. Then look at specific words you are using. When familiar things start acting in unfamiliar ways, it scares people.
Q: What is your personal line between good horror and gore-nographic?
A: Does it change the character? What is the purpose? What is the audience reaction? Remember, gore is not horror. Context.
Q: How do you avoid going too far?
A: Again, gore is not horror. Who are you writing for? Your first reader is you — is it too much for you?
Q: In movies, horror is often communicated through subtle incidental things like lighting, sound, and music. How do those things transfer into the written word?
A: Details and mannerisms. Get into the character’s head early and understand what makes them fearful. Word choice and rhythm. Establish the familiar, then change a small aspect of it.
Q: For someone who has written similar genres to horror, thrillers and suspense, what would be the best way for me to start edging into writing a horror story instead?
A: Write for your audience. Atmospheric details. Beta readers who love horror. Don’t flinch. Lay out your plot, then find a way to force the character to make a horrible decision and deal with the consequences.
Q: How do you decide when to show the monster, and how does it change your story once you have?
A: When it fits your plot. After you prepare the reader to be scared, and when it will cause the most harm. When you show the monster, either make it different than we expect OR far worse than we expect.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Horror.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Puppet] And I’m behind you [choke…]
[Brandon] And we also have…
[What did I do?]
[Howard] That voice gets me every time.
[Mary] I know. I love that.
[Howard] Hey, Steve’s back.
[Brandon] Yes. He never left…
[Steve] Are you sure?
[Brandon] He’s been living in my basement for the last three weeks. I think after this, we will finally be rid of him.
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Steve] Oh, man.
[Brandon] Q&A on horror. You have asked your questions of us, and we are going to answer them. But this is the last podcast we’re doing in a long string, so… I’m not sure any of the answers will be what you want to hear.
[Mary] There’s chocolate pie waiting for us.
[Howard] Oh, it’s going to end badly? Start with the questions, though.
[Brandon] All right. Darcy asks, “If I want to make something ordinary, like peanut butter, terrifying without coming off as silly, how do I do that?”
[Mary] A lot of it has to do with the character’s reaction to it. Most of it has to do with the character’s reaction to it. Within that, what you’re going to be looking at is the specific words that you’re using. So you don’t describe the peanut butter as beautiful, tan and shiny, you describe it as muddy brown and slimy… Or a sheen of oil on the… On it.
[Steve] Starting to separate.
[Mary] Starting to… Yeah.
[Howard] The character walks into the kitchen. The character knows that her sister’s baby is deathly allergic to peanuts. Somebody has been making peanut butter sandwiches on the counter, and she can smell the peanut, and she can see the smears everywhere.
[Brandon] Even worse…
[Howard] It’s all death.
[Brandon] We’ve had this one, because you see little handprints and knows that the brother and sister have had peanut butter…
[Dan] [have gotten into it?]
[Brandon] And they are now running toward…
[Howard] They are somewhere in the house.
[Dan] This is one of the… Basically, the first principle that I talk about when I teach classes on how to scare people is that familiar things start acting in an unfamiliar way. Go and watch the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the aliens show up at the house. It’s all just like vacuum cleaners going by themselves and record players starting without anyone pushing the buttons. Absolutely normal household objects. It is one of the most terrifying scenes ever put on film.
[Steve] That’s very much a haunting.
[Howard] Darcy should have picked something less scary than peanut butter. That was easy.
[Mary] But I just have to say that this is again very much about the character’s reaction to it. Because in Mary Poppins, things start going by themselves and it’s wonderful and magical because that’s the way the characters are reacting to it.
[Brandon] Right. Soundtrack also. Make sure your book has a good… No.
[Brandon] All right. Jasmine has an excellent question. I love the phrasing of this. What is your personal line between good horror and gore-nographic?
[Steve] Gore-nographic? Nice.
[Dan] I like gore-nographic as a word.
[Dan] As a thing.
[Mary] Does it change the character?
[Dan] It comes down to what is the purpose?
[Steve] Yeah, what’s the use of it?
[Dan] What is the audience reaction? Did I put this bloody splash of whatever into the book because that makes it scarier or just because that makes it more tense or more exciting or more whatever? How am I using those elements?
[Brandon] Now, I will say… I want to kind of push you guys on this one, because I think some people really like this. I’ve never seen the movie Evil Dead, but people I know who love it, what they love about it is the over-the-top gore. Is that a separate thing from the horror or is that an enhancement of the horror? What is it that they’re enjoying about the over-the-top gore in a film like that?
[Dan] What they’re enjoying… At least what I’m enjoying in a movie like Evil Dead is the combination of it. Because we could run down a list of allegedly horror movies that are really just gore. Here’s a splash of blood, here’s a bunch of dead bodies. Rob Zombie makes these kind of movies all the time. They’re not really frightening. They’re not horrific. They’re just gross. There’s absolutely an audience for that. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got movies like The Others that have no gore in them at all but are terrifying. Something like Evil Dead is using elements of both, and that’s what makes it effective.
[Howard] I like the question, what is your personal line? I watched Django Unchained two weeks after, or maybe not two weeks, shortly after Sandy Hook. I remember looking at that final scene in which the walls are splashed with blood from a gunfight, and in my mind, I recontextualized that and felt nothing but dread and sickness and horror at a movie that was not necessarily shooting for that. So the context that you put the reader in when you create this… You have some control of that, but what the reader brings to the party is incredibly important, and you don’t have control over that piece.
[Steve] I think it depends on the medium. Are we talking about movies, are we talking about books?
[Brandon] We’re talking about books, specifically.
[Steve] Okay. Because in… My threshold for that line is far, far, far lower say in a film than it is in books.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would say…
[Steve] In books, I can… My brain can auto filter some of the stuff out or it can change it, like Howard says. For me, like Dan says, that gore has to serve a purpose. Either whether as a promise of what’s to come or as making good on the promise you made earlier.
[Howard] Now if Tarantino had wanted me to feel what I felt, then everything done in that film was done exactly right. That’s why I bring it up as an example. Because you contextualize it correctly and…
[Brandon] So, the next several questions, people are really interested in this topic. So we’re going to kind of stay on this gore one.
[Brandon] Because the next question is, how do you avoid going too far? I.e., the second episode of Breaking Bad make me, this person, Brady, stop watching the entire series.
[Dan] That’s too bad, because it’s the greatest TV show ever.
[Steve] That’s so unfortunate.
[Dan] First, before we get too far into the topic of gore, the thing we have to say, because it seems like our listeners are conflating this, gore and horror are not the same thing. You do not need any gore, you don’t need blood, you don’t even need death to tell an effective horror story. That is part of the problem that horror has as a genre. When I tell people I’m a horror author, the first things that come to mind are either 80s slasher movies or 70s era Stephen King possessed demon child movies.
[Steve] I get the same reactions.
[Dan] That’s not what horror is anymore, and it’s not what horror has to be. So don’t force horror into that box.
[Brandon] We’re talking about the genre distilled down. We’re not talking about the bookstore genre even. We’re talking about the genre distilled down. Lovecraft is often brought up as a great horror writer. There are no body counts in Lovecraft books. It is one person’s descent into madness, almost always. That’s terrifying for someone who’s literate like me. Like, the loss of faculties in my own mind is the most terrifying thing I can imagine.
[Dan] Love… Go ahead.
[Mary] I’m going to say that there’s actually a fairly simple answer to this question, which is that… Remember that every reader is different, and also that readers come in big groups as well. So you need to think about who you’re writing for. The first person that you’re writing for is yourself. So if it is too much for you, then it’s wrong. If it’s not too much for you, then it’s okay. It’s just that you have to know that that’s the audience that you’re writing for. Most of the people who are watching Breaking Bad, who continued watching it, didn’t have problems with that scene.
[Brandon] Indeed, in some ways, it’s a good thing they put that scene there. Not having seen that show myself…
[Mary] Nor have I.
[Brandon] But it’s a good thing they put that scene in to indicate this is not a show that you will like if this…
[Howard] As a filter.
[Brandon] If this… That is a good thing. So I’m actually going to put a pin in all of the other gore questions. There’s like 15 more. We’re not going to touch on this topic anymore.
[Brandon] Actually, I’m going to stop us for the book of the week, because Dan, you are going to pitch I Am Legend to us.
[Dan] Yes. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is, and I can say this with official backup, it is one of, if not the greatest horror stories of our age. In fact, a few years ago at the World Horror Convention, it won the Stoker award for best vampire novel of the century.
[Dan] It’s a fantastic story. Basically… I mean, it’s been made into a million movies and you’ve probably seen half of them…
[Brandon] But none of them actually give the story.
[Dan] None of them actually get the story right, but the basic premise is that the world has been taken over by vampires and there’s one human left. He is hunting them. It com… It flips vampirism and the vampire story on its head. It is in equal parts tense and thrilling and horrific. It is absolutely fantastic. It’s also very short. It will not be a big investment of your time to read one of the greatest horror stories ever.
[Brandon] Right. You can buy it on Audible for like… It’s five hours long. So you can go pick it up there, listen for five hours, and get this amazing experience with a horror story if you’re wanting to figure out how it goes.
[Howard] You can launch your trial at Audible… Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Who narrates I am Legend?
[Dan] Robertson Dean.
[Brandon] Yeah. Robertson Dean.
[Brandon] All right. Next question. In movies, horror is often communicated through subtle incidental things like lighting, sound, and music. How do those things transfer into the written word? Someone who’s been reading my mind about having a good soundtrack.
[Brandon] How do you get these things across in your books?
[Steve] For me, it’s all little details. It’s mannerisms in the character. It’s getting in their head early and often and understanding what it is that makes them fearful. Earlier, Dan talked about going… Well, both Howard and Dan talked about going into a flashback and seeing how they react in a situation, and then seeing that situation played out later and knowing that they are going to make a terrible, awful decision and they can’t help it. Those sort of little details and those things that push it forward.
[Howard] In terms of things that you can do in a book that you can’t do in a movie, I start with the details like you’re talking about, and then on my editorial pass, I look at word choice and rhythm to try and create a song, a dirge, a something that resonates with me in a scarier way than the words I originally picked. I can’t give you any examples of that, but I do it every time as I turn the screws on individual syllables for maximum effect.
[Steve] For me, it’s all about how many words I use, too.
[Dan] What you need to do is look at what purpose, what function do those sound cues in a movie have, and really what they are designed to do is to put you on edge. Because you’re in a normal setting, but why is that cello suddenly playing?
[Dan] Why is the lightning flashing? What’s that weird shadow in the corner of the screen? You can add those into a book by… I talked earlier about making familiar things become unfamiliar. First you have to establish what familiar is. Make us comfortable in a setting, and then change some small aspect of it. It will have a very similar effect to that weird “Oh, all of a sudden the creepy cello’s playing, I know something bad is about to happen.”
[Howard] Read the poem The Bells. Poe’s The Bells. Look at the way he uses sound to make you hear things and feel things about the bells. Then figure out how to do that with everything else.
[Brandon] So. Next question, I think, is also very interesting. Nicole asks, for someone who has written similar genres to horror, thrillers and suspense, what would be the best way for me to start edging into writing a horror story instead?
[Mary] So, I don’t write horror very often, and usually I only write it when someone asks me to. What I find is that the difference for me between writing something that is scary and writing something that is specifically horror… A lot of it is thinking about who my audience is going to be so that I’m writing it for people who want that. But a lot of it comes down to, for lack of a better word, the atmospheric details that I’m putting in. That from the very first sentence, that I have to make sure that the kind of language that I’m using is darker and more… I keep using the word visceral. But that instead of describing the perfect rosebush, that I’ll focus… I’ll choose to focus on the petals that are starting to wilt on the rosebush. So that I’m shaping the reader’s expectations about where it’s going to go. Then, the other thing that I do is that I look at what am I afraid of. As I’m writing, I kind of pay attention to whether or not I’m starting to make my own… Like, if I’m pushing back in my seat, then that’s…
[Brandon] Then you know [garbled – something’s going on?]
[Howard] Procedurally, the one that was… The trick that was most useful for me, and it was when I did the first Space Eldritch piece was having beta readers who like horror and understand horror who could read this and who can tell me, “Okay, this is good, but you flinched here. You relieved the tension too soon. Stop backing away from it. I kept asking, ‘Is he gonna? Is he gonna?’ Then you didn’t, and you need to.” Find beta readers who love horror and try to write horror for them. They can let you know what you’re doing wrong.
[Mary] That’s a really good point. The first thing that I wrote that was really horror is a story called Cerbo en Vitra ujo which I will not let my mother read. There was a scene that I got to and I faded to black. Because you could tell that the bad thing was going to happen, so I didn’t need to show it. Which is the way I would normally approach that. I had to write the scene because you actually have to live that moment with the character.
[Brandon] Dan, you had something?
[Dan] Yeah. I want to… Specifically, as someone who has been writing thrillers or mysteries, like the question asker. What I want you to do in that case is to come up with your great new thriller plot, and then find a way to force the character into a horrible decision. Into a moral compromise or an outright awful thing. Then build your plot around some way to get them there. Where that’s the only choice they can make. That, even without whatever trappings of horror, that by itself will add a bunch of horror to the story.
[Steve] Plus you have to deal with the consequences to that.
[Howard] I’m really excited for the journey this writer’s about to embark on.
[Howard] Seriously, learning to not flinch from the bits that you’ve been flinching from is hugely educational as a writer. I loved it.
[Brandon] So I’m going to end us with this last question. I’m actually going to point it at Steve and Dan specifically. I want Steve to take the first crack at it, if he can.
[Steve] All right.
[Brandon] There are several questions in here that I’m going to conflate into one about showing the monster. The question I’m going to turn it into is how do you decide when to show the monster, and how does it change your story once you have?
[Steve] Well. For me, showing the monster… I don’t… There’s this big, so-called rule that you can’t ever show the monster. I don’t agree with that. I think you can show it if you want to. It just has to be in… It has to be in service to your plot. So in my book, I show a monster right from the very beginning. That isn’t because I want you to… I don’t want you to be scared by how scary it looks or whatever. It’s because I want you… I want to promise you that I’m going to make good on this monster, and that this monster is going to just cause havoc. The damage it can do and the horrible things it can cause… It isn’t just the monster, it’s everything surrounding the monster. What it can… All the horrible things it can enact upon people. The way it smells, the way it sounds. So that’s…
[Dan] I would say there are two rules. When you show the monster? First of all, you show the monster after you prepare the reader to be scared by it, and two, when it will cause the maximum amount of harm to the story. The way that you prepare the reader for that monster is you have to pick one of two directions. The reason that there’s this kind of unspoken rule Steve was talking about that you don’t show the monster is because once you’ve shown the monster, you’ve taken away that sense of unknown and you’ve made it concrete. Now it’s not a mystery anymore, it’s just a well, how do you kill this thing? So the way you get around that so it’s not a problem is (A) you make the monster something different than we were expecting or (B) you make it far worse than we were expecting. Jaws is a great example of this because it’s a shark, and eventually we’re going to have to see the shark. So early in the movie, they show us a shark. They drag out a dead shark right on dock and they get their picture taken with it and its bloody and it’s gross and it’s huge. When we see the real monster later in the movie, it’s five times bigger and so much worse than that first shark prepared us for. It’s effective, because in our head, we say, “Oh, well, I know what a shark looks like. I’ve seen one already.” But the one we actually see later is so much worse.
[Brandon] All right. That’s all the time we have. But Dan is actually going to give us some homework.
[Dan] All right. We gave this homework to one of our listeners. We’re going to give it to all of you. We want you to plot out a story and build an outline that will force your character to make a horrible choice. Force them to do something they shouldn’t do, to compromise themselves morally, to do whatever awful thing. Then build it so that that’s the only choice they can make when the situation arrives.
[Brandon] All right. Well, thank you again, to Steve Diamond.
[Steve] Thank you.
[Brandon] Let’s also mention Residue, his book, which you can get at fine bookstores everywhere, but mostly Audible and online is your best bet, right?
[Steve] That is the best bet.
[Brandon] And you guys are out of excuses, now go write.
[Chuckles fading into the distance]